Chris DeLine

Cedar Rapids, IA

The Great Diet Soda Debate

Published in Blog.

Here’s my dilemma: I don’t really care to drink water exclusively, and I don’t want to consume the calories that come with normal soda, so for the most part when I want to pour myself a refreshing ice-cold beverage, I stick with diet soda. Diet Mountain Dew is a personal favorite, and diet A&W Root Beer isn’t far behind, but to be honest: I usually keep it cheap and stick with generic store-brand alternatives (for 89 cents, it’s hard to say no). Diet soda tastes good and by choosing it over regular soft-drinks, I avoid the 800 (or so) calories that come with every two liter of the normal stuff that I might otherwise pour down my throat. The problem is: diet soda isn’t exactly a “healthy” alternative.

Most diet soda brands use the artificial sweetener aspartame (NutraSweet), and aspartame is hardly a recommended nutritional supplement. In doctor-speak, “Aspartame consists of the amino acids phenylalanine (50%), aspartic acid (40%), and a methyl ester (10%) that promptly becomes free methanol after entering the stomach. 3 The breakdown of phenylalanine to highly vasoactive substances—such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine—is clearly relevant to pulmonary hypertension, systemic hypertension, and the frequent cardiac arrhythmias experienced by persons with aspartame disease.” Which is to say that upon being ingested, aspartame becomes aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol — and yes, that is the same methanol that further breaks down into formaldehyde, potentially “damag[ing] both your immune and nervous systems.” The chemical’s relationship to cancer is staggering and its impact on diabetes is highly suspicious. All in all, aspartame isn’t exactly something that nurtures healthy bodies.

This isn’t exactly news to me though — actually, I’ve been doing my best ostrich with my head in the sand for a while now — so in an effort to flip the script in my own life, I stopped in my local grocery store this week and looked at every brand of diet soda they have to see if any didn’t contain aspartame. The single-solitary-choice that I found was the regional cherry soda brand Cheerwine. “Born in the South. Raised in a Glass. Since 1917. Cheerwine is the legendary singular soft drink of the South with the taste that always surprises.” Unlike Coke and Pepsi products, Cheerwine uses sucralose (Splenda) as its artificial sweetener — even touting the lack of aspartame right there on its label. By Splenda’s own accord it’s, “a great choice for everyone looking to take small steps to live a little healthier each day.” “Whether you’re looking to manage weight, cut back a few calories, minimize carbs or just plain eat a little better,” its website advocates, “Splenda Brand Sweetener Products are the perfect way to help you do that.” Not bad, right? So, I put a bottle in my basket, brought it home with me, poured myself a glass and hit the web to find out what I was drinking. Pretty tasty stuff considering it’s “a man-made chemical sweetener containing chlorine.”

Sucralose, while still posing some potential health concerns that include “skin rashes/flushing, panic-like agitation, dizziness and numbness, diarrhea, swelling, muscle aches, headaches, intestinal cramping, bladder issues, and stomach pain,” doesn’t seem to have the same risks as aspartame, but no studies have been conducted to gauge the long-term effects of the sugar-substitute, so very little information is available in that regard. The FDA (which is hardly the noble, people-first department of health-regulation that it’s made out to be), sticks by its approval of both aspartame and sucralose in diet sodas, ruling that the levels of the chemicals that are found in the products are suitable for human consumption. Just remember though: ammonia-soaked McNuggets are also “suitable for human consumption.”

All the same, as the year winds down and fresh, new, and exciting goals take hold for 2013, edging its way closer to the top of my list of things to do is: stop drinking soda. Period. Diet or otherwise. I don’t think it’ll make a huge impact on my life — all things considered, removing diet soda from my actual diet isn’t going to right a lifetime of nutritional wrongs. That said, I think it’s still worthwhile in the event that diet soda actually does disrupt metabolism, damage kidneys, and contribute tooth decay. Wouldn’t you agree? As far-fetched New Year’s resolutions are concerned, a No Soda New Year doesn’t seem entirely all that crazy, so I think I’m going to do it.

(Well… a little Cheerwine every now and then probably isn’t going to hurt.)